Safety Research & Strategies Takes DOT and NHTSA Transparency Battle to Court; Sues for Toyota Investigation Documents

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Safety Research & Strategies, a Massachusetts safety research firm that advocates for consumers on safety matters, sued the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration today over the release of Toyota Unintended Acceleration investigation documents.

The civil action, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Civil Action No. 11-2165), alleges that the U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA violated the Freedom of Information Act by withholding public records involving an unintended acceleration incident reported by a 2007 Lexus RX owner in Sarasota Florida, and requests the court to order their release.

“One of President Obama’s first acts was to issue an Executive Order on transparency and open government, pledging a commitment to creating ‘an unprecedented level of openness in government,’” says SRS founder and President Sean E. Kane. “The DOT and NHTSA have pledged transparency but have consistently kept vital information from the public.  The agency’s numerous investigations into Toyota Unintended Acceleration have been characterized by continued secrecy, preventing a full accounting of their activities and the complete replication of their analyses by independent parties.  This lawsuit asks the court to compel the release of documents that are relevant to a significant safety recall.”

On December 2, 2010, Timothy Scott, 47, was driving at less than 15 mph, before braking to make a turn into his apartment complex, when he noticed that his vehicle was not slowing. Scott applied the brakes with all of his strength, but the engine was “screaming,” as he later described it, and the tachometer was approaching to “red-line.” Scott was able to slow his vehicle and shift into stop. He attempted to re-start his 2007 Lexus RX twice, but the engine continued to race. When Mr. Scott exited his vehicle, he immediately checked to be sure the floor mats were still secured by the anchors; he found nothing obstructing the accelerator pedal.

The Lexus dealership initially blamed the floormat, even though the floor mats in Scott’s vehicle had not been recalled and were fully secured.  Toyota sent a team of engineers to inspect the Lexus, who concluded that dislodged molding jammed the accelerator, a scenario Mr. Scott adamantly denied.  Three weeks later, Toyota offered to buy the entire vehicle from Mr. Scott–a rare and unusual offer from the automaker–rather than simply fix a piece of plastic molding.

In February 2011, Toyota announced it was recalling the 2007 Lexus RX as well as other models and model years to replace the driver’s side floor carpet cover and its two retention clips, because an improperly installed forward retention clip in the center console could allow the carpet to obstruct the accelerator pedal.  (The recall included 372,000 2004 through 2006 and early 2007 RX 330, RX 350, and RX 400h vehicles as well as 397,000 2004 through 2006 Highlander and Highlander HV vehicles.)  In 2006, Toyota recalled 2004-2005 and early 2006 Highlanders and 2004 – 2005 Lexus RX 330 and 2006 RX400h for the same problem.

A field team from NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation looked into the Scott incident, generating photos, videos and other documents, which SRS had sought as part of its ongoing research into Toyota UA.

SRS has been examining the public record regarding Toyota UA since 2009.  The company has issued numerous, detailed reports, report updates, and analyses related to the unintended acceleration in Toyotas based on public records (see Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration). The company has sponsored additional reports on other aspects of Toyota UA from statistical and automotive electronics experts.  These analyses, released to the public, document the troubling inconsistencies in those records and in statements by Toyota, the DOT and NHTSA.  The DOT and NHTSA analyses fail to adequately account for UA claims in non-recalled models and years, and for UA events that cannot be explained by mechanical interference or driver error.

This body of research has been tapped by Congress, independent scientists and engineers, the media and consumers seeking to better understand this crisis, how it unfolded, and its safety implications for Toyota vehicles, NHTSA’s ability to adequately investigate and regulate electronic defects, and future designs of electronic throttle systems.

In contrast, NHTSA has withheld all but a few records related to the Scott investigation, making the extraordinary claim that factual documents, including photographs and videos, were part of the agency’s “deliberative process” and exempt from public disclosure.

SRS argues that the agency’s actions prohibit a full understanding of an important safety recall and its adequacy.  SRS’s lawsuit follows a recent Department of Transportation Inspector General report criticizing NHTSA for its lack of transparency and documentation in its investigations and comes on the heels of disclosure that NHTSA hid months of investigation into Chevy Volt post-crash fires.

“Shielding documents that clearly belong in the public domain only diminishes the DOT and NHTSA’s credibility and leaves consumers wondering who and what they are really protecting” said Sean Kane.